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One Last Push
Health

This 29-Year Old Footballer Tragically Died of Polio. 60 Years Later, Birmingham Remembers His Legacy.

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Polio may soon become the second disease successfully eradicated by humans, after smallpox. It’s already 99.9% eradicated thanks to decades spent vaccinating children all over the world. But total eradication would be a huge step forward to achieving Global Goal 3 for universal good health and well-being. Take action here to support the lifesaving work of vaccines.

In May 1956, Birmingham City right-back and England international Jeff Hall shook off a virus to play in the FA Cup final against Manchester City in front of a roaring crowd of 100,000 at Wembley. 

Although Birmingham lost, it marked a historic year for the club: the furthest the club has progressed in English football’s most prestigious cup competition, in a season that saw them finish sixth in the top division, their highest ever league position.

Sixty years later, and as a long season draws to a close, Birmingham has paused to remember Hall, that quiet, quick full-back with a legacy that has since transcended football. 

Take Action: Demand World Leaders Invest in Vaccines

Less than two years after that iconic final, Hall unknowingly played his final game for Birmingham against Portsmouth. He soon grew critically ill — and within two weeks of emergency operations and high-profile media attention, the 29-year-old had died.

Hall had been diagnosed with polio, an incurable disease that can paralyse and even kill. 

It has since been almost entirely eradicated thanks to decades of rigorous vaccination work. But Hall’s death came at a point when barely half of children in England and Wales had been inoculated against it, according to a Guardian feature by Simon Burnton.

Within weeks of his well-publicised illness, there were immense queues all over the country as people rushed to get vaccinated. After a Ministry of Health spokesperson highlighted the “unprecedented demand”, Britain actually ran out of the vaccine — and had to order emergency stocks from the US.

It was a transformative moment — especially for young people in the UK. Burnton notes that in 1958, only 5% of those in their 20s had been inoculated. Three years later, 63% had received the vaccines. 

Likewise, just 3% of 30-somethings had been vaccinated before Hall’s death. It had reportedly increased to 53% by 1961. 

Polio has now been 99.9% eradicated worldwide — and as my train pulled into Birmingham New Street station on April 25, as World Immunisation Week was well underway, the memory of Hall’s death breathed through the whole city.

Just past the ticket gates, an exhibition told his story — that of a “proper local legend” who met a tragic end. 

“You’d never seen a man so quick,” it read. “An England player with a bright future.” It went on to urge people to help wipe out polio forever — there were just 33 cases of the disease globally last year — and take action with the One Last Push campaign.

Leaving the station, a giant digital advertising board towered over the main road featuring old newspaper clippings remembering the demand for the polio vaccine after Hall’s death, proclaiming that “in 1959, Birmingham did its part.” 

Read More: The UK Pledges to Immunise up to 45 Million Children Against Polio

One Last Push — a movement to end polio in partnership with Global Citizen, Results UK, and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) — hosted an event that afternoon in Birmingham’s Impact Hub, platforming polio survivors, activists, and MPs Jess Phillips, Stephen Twigg, Khalid Mahmood, and Andrew Mitchell.

Paralympian Anne Wafula-Strike — one of among approximately 100,000 people living in the UK today with the effects of polio — led talks about life with the disease, campaigning efforts, and hopes for total eradication.

“In World Immunisation Week, I cannot overstate how vital it is to make that one last push we need to eradicate diseases like polio for good,” Wafula-Strike told Global Citizen. “Let’s keep pushing.”

Britain’s Department for International Development (DfID) announced in August 2017 that it would immunise 45 million children against polio every year until 2020 — that’s 80 kids vaccinated every single minute with funding from UK aid. But that investment is about to run out.

The commemoration of Hall’s legacy continued a few streets away in Digbeth, with a mural painted by local street artist Justin Sola. 

It took three days to complete the piece, and was visited by Birmingham City FC’s director Edward Zheng to pay tribute to Hall and his wife, Dawn, who has spent the decades since Hall’s death campaigning against polio. 

A photo of Zheng standing by the mural was then also included in the match day programme for Birmingham’s final home game of the season.

“I think it’s an incredibly important story for Birmingham,” artist Sola told Global Citizen over email. “It will serve as a reminder of the loss of Jeff Hall at the peak of his physical fitness at such a young age — and how that kick-started widespread public acceptance in Britain of the need for vaccination.”

Read More: England's World Cup Team Would Be Unrecognisable Without Immigration

“It will also help to see how far we have come to eradicating the disease,” he added. “The most shocking thing that was brought to my attention is the fact that polio affects mainly children under five — and that there is no cure for it once you have it. Vaccination is the key.”

And Birmingham City fans appear united in agreement. Global Citizen visited St. Andrew’s Stadium on April 27 to talk to Blues fans at the game against Wigan Athletic  — and everybody had an awful lot to say about vaccines.

“I know there’s lots of controversy over vaccines, but I work for the NHS and I know how important is is,” said Helen Deeks, at the game with her 9-year-old son, Kian. “I’ve seen kids that haven’t been vaccinated and it can have a lot of detrimental effects.”

“I must admit, for a small part of the time I was a bit of a sceptic,” said Simone Freeman, speaking next to her daughter Star. “I wasn’t sure whether to vaccinate my children because I just wanted what’s best for them. I did read so many scare stories and everything.

“I’ve done more research [now], spent ages doing research,” she added. “And I thought, basically, it’s got to be done — it’s going to save lives.”